By nature, and as a photographer by profession, I am constantly aware of sunlight. Watching sunlight move through the day, arranging itself around objects and landscapes in ever-changing ways, is a constant source of joy and hope for me. It is, perhaps, for this reason that enduring the winter months when the sun gets up late and goes to bed early can be a challenge. As early as four o'clock in the afternoon, while there is still much to be done in my day, the beauty of twilight is snuffed out by cover of night.
There are other things about winter that make it challenging for the natural photographer in me as well. The winter landscape lacks color. Trees clothed in the delicate greens of spring and summer, and in the brilliant reds, oranges, and yellows of autumn are stripped to a uniform brown in winter. Barren branches provide good studies in contrast and pattern, but all in all they are not nearly as spectacular as branches plump with leaves, flowers, and fruits.
In order to compensate for the loss of sunlight and color in my world, I have trained myself to look for evidence of spring's return amid the winter months. Did you know, for example, that as early as January, leaf buds appear on tree branches?! More amazing yet, rivers of sap begin to flow in barren tree branches around the end of February. I know this is true because since I was a kid I have tapped maple trees, collected the sap, and boiled it down to the amber sweet goodness of maple syrup. Even today I carry on this tradition with my own kids, filling the dry, winter air in the house with sweet-smelling clouds of maple mist. Looking for tree buds and making maple syrup reminds me that, even though nature appears to be dead in the middle of winter, it is in fact just waiting — like I am — for the return of the sun before springing to life again.
It is during these waning weeks of winter and of maple sugaring that Catholics are called into the liturgical season of Lent. Frankly, I am of a split mind about the timing of this. On one hand I always want to say, "But I've given up sunlight and color for months now. What greater sacrifice can I offer up than to be joyful even without the beauty of sunlight to catch my eye? Lent is really just too much to bear on the heels of winter."
On the other hand, I think that Lent couldn't come during a better time of year. The coinciding of Lent with days of ever-increasing sunlight provides us with an ideal chance to spiritually join with nature in anticipating the return of a different type of light at Easter; the Light of the World, Jesus Christ. By stripping from our lives some of the things that naturally give us pleasure, Lenten sacrifices help us see through the temporal happiness of the world to Jesus, who hung on the barren cross for our sins, and by this sacrifice became our ultimate source of joy, hope, and life.
As we close out the season of Lent this year, let us offer up our sacrifices, but using nature as our guide, let us also train ourselves to look closely for signs of new, spiritual life even in the most hopeless corners of our world. These signs may be as small as leaf buds in January; signs like a standing argument between two family members that doesn't ignite because one member exercises self-control and pinches the fuse. These signs may even be as invisible as sap running through trees in February: signs like an increasing, personal desire to read and understand scripture or an interior yearning to participate in the Mass more often. They are small or invisible, but they are still real. Pretty much impossible to photograph, these are the signs of new life for which we should eagerly look this Lent. They are evidence of the Light of the World shining into our souls and preparing us for an Easter season of life flourishing with the gifts and the fruit of the Holy Spirit.